Rajinikanth for the longest time competed with Pillayarpatti Pillaiyarappan, Madurai Meenakshi and Sabarimalai Ayyappan for my devotional attentions during exam time to bail me out of the ignominy of failure. As I grew older I managed to shake away my idolatry affinities of the latter three. Rajinikanth still infuses piety in me. But that is not to say there are occasional lapses in faith even in Thalaivar matters.
The Context of Tamil Movies
Pa Ranjith’s Kabali has rightly generated a lot of talk. However before diving into Kabali it might be worth looking at the state of Tamil movies. No movie maker is exempt from his producer’s pressure of churning a profit or catering to an unappreciative audience. An audience that many directors claim are not discerning, are incapable or unwilling to think, and one that “wants to escape reality for a couple of hours”. It is to such audience that VijayKanth, Vijay, Ajith (not so much nowadays I guess), Karthi, Arya and the likes cater to. It is a fair concern. But if all a director and producer want to do is serve a fare that is palatable to the general masses, then let us not claim the movie is good in cinematic merit. I suspect any good director of any age is always subjected to such pressures. Indian movie goers have always been divided into many categories, probably by classes and genders and ages. If that is an excuse Ranjith is planning to dangle it is a much dead cow, flogged, flayed and stretched onto a tharai thappattai and dappankuthufied to death. If Kabali is to be compared beyond the kuruvis, sivajis and theris then man up and break free of its self imposed audience reception restrictions.
Balu Mahendra, Balachandar, Bharati Raja have all taken bold confident movies that mix social themes with commerce without compromising their arts. Taking movies to the realm of divinity John Abraham, Aravindan, Ritwik Ghatak and many such stalwarts have devoted their life to telling a story. In art, if you don’t commit you don’t deserve the space. Neighboring Malayalam industry keeps innovating as do emerging movies in Tamil with smaller budgets and well informed teams (Orange Mittai, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kanom etc).
Is Rajini Too Big To Fail
Rajini is not a baby. He is 65 years old. If he cannot take the responsibility, risk or passion to immerse himself into a character other than his standard superhuman imagery that is his, and only his, inadequacy and unwillingness to expand as an actor. No amount of “look at his style at this age” or “what screen presence at 65” or “I still need to cater to my fans” puts him above mediocre actors. The oft referred era of tying up with the likes of Balachandar to deliver power characters is Balachandar’s credit. Not Rajinikanth’s forethought. If Amitabh Bachan can break free of his mould to do a Piku, if Mammootty can balance Pranchiyettan and the Saint and Rajamanickyam and when Mohanlal can portray crazed killers in Bhramaram with the same finesse as an amnesiac in Thanmatra it is a matter of artistic deficiency and risk averseness that makes Rajini sit in his high castle trembling to venture out into the unknown. He is over-hyped as an actor and has far overstayed his creative tenure in the industry other than to provide pop culture material. He is good. But he is now in the Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and Arnold level of kitsch. He is too big because he failed to experiment.
The Pressures of Movie Making
The other big excuse that is rolled out is the commercial pressures of making a movie. If a director is looking to make a commercial movie compromising his art that is his prerogative. Just don’t use that as a shield to foist off half baked movies onto the audience.
Kabali – The Movie
A movie is only as good as it is executed. While it is possible to dissect a movie into compartments to apportion blame to the various components of the movie the failure of the movie in totality means as a whole the contriver’s vision has failed. In most cases that is the Director. Be it Vijaykant talking about nationalism in his many terror inducing police garbs, or Kabali as a venture where Rajini is used to broach hitherto untouched dalit topics and class divides, a movie’s internal merit should not be confused with the message it carries unconvincingly.
The Politics of Kabali
Kabali is touted as a venture that nudges the sluggish audience with a message of equality, skin colour politics, drug problems and tamil alienation and subculture outside Tamil Nadu. All of which sounds bombastic. I am reminded of an interview by Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan, where they discuss how they deal with sexual identity, challenge patriarchy, overthrow established mores of monogamy and other high faluting ideas in their then latest venture, Khabhi Khushi Khabhi Gham. No amount of articulate earnestness, intelligence and idealism behind the screen can salvage a bad movie. Pa Ranjith can bleed his heart out about the causes he espouses but if his movie has gaping plotholes, execution weaknesses and sub par performances by many cast members, all that can be said is that he is great off screen. To conflate that image of his persona with greatness of the movie is plain wrong. This is just another Kshatriyan movie or a Ghilli movie or any other “love trumps all/do gooder/mustachiod teen super hero worship” movie.
The Pisaasu is in the Detailsu
If aspiring to make a good movie, the easiest aspects to fix are reality, continuity, logical lapses and general attention to detail. We are not talking about money pits of animation or locations or cast changes. Attention to small details cumulatively add up to make a great experience. A story however fantastical should adhere to its own world’s physics, chemistry and culture. This is the director’s vision of reality. If he wants to induce magical, nonsensical, gritty or other tonal variations it is completely his prerogative. But when they are not crafted with intention it is appallingly glaring. For e.x. in Kabali,
- From when do point blank shooting not manage to kill? Kabali survives 5 bullets, Kumudhavalli survives 2(?), through a score of bullets Yogi survives. Everyone the director wants to live survives. Only logic dies. Johnson and Johnson bandaids for critical bullet injuries and brazen laughter followed by rock music is just childish after 50 years of movie making.
- Do directors still think a gunfight goes uninvestigated in major cities? In Bangkok, Kuala Lampur and Pondicherry gun fire in public spaces is not a common event and neither can those involved miraculously speed away on empty streets. Even if they escape, there are enough well made movies that show the perpetrators escape into the crowd or on foot or some such cinematic device. For gods sake don’t show them piling into a car in a crowded Bangkok sleaze market because they are going to get stuck big time on the Soi Sukhumvit traffic.
- Rajini and co also seem to have no qualms engaging in gun fire in a crowded space. Ricochets, cross fire, innocent Thai and Malay and Tamil bystanders getting snuffed be damned. Was it in Zatoichi that the master swordsman is beaten in an inn where he does not draw his sword as it was too crowded. He then proceeds in the next scene to track them villains down? Simple etiquette. When will tamil cinema and the audience understand that movies are not just punch dialogues and quick turns, but also the awkward pauses when the villain does not hear the delivered dialogue. Or explaining to the cops that you are a Tamil gangster from Malaysia in search of his debilitated nemesis who is the foster parent of your abducted daughter. That too in Thai (but Yogi must know Thai no? So maybe!).
- Lack of self awareness. Pa Ranjith (and Rajinikanth) are trying to solve systemic issues in his city. Rehabilitating wayward youngsters from gangsterism and drug muling and in general weaning them away from the evil influences of quick money. Instead of setting an example of letting things go he is hell bent on wreaking personal vengeance at any collateral cost. A dead wife, kid, raped mother, sister, racial discrimination, alienation, depression are all probable causes for most of the gang members. Your cooling glasses and punch dialogues are quite superficial if you do not really understand the root of the problem. Which is probably why you dont see Buddha wearing a mala of angulis even as he sermonizes Angulimala. “Tiger” talks of his fascination with guns and how it is a matter of prestige and power to handle one. Instead of undermining that sentiment what does Kabali do? You guessed it. Glamorize guns. If Pa Ranjith wants to play with big questions he better understand the nuances of portrayal.
- Useless characters and overacting –
- Tamizhnesanin Flashbacks – I guess this is subjective but I’ll wade in anyways. What exactly were the points of these flashbacks? It is an old cinematic trick. Nowadays if one employs it, it should be for good reason. E.x. show multi perspective recreations of the same event (like rashomon or virumandi), or to show missing critical story elements that cannot be voiced over or narrated. (manichitrathazhu has a long narration by Mohanlal explaining the genesis and development of a medical condition that is both fascinating and absorbing in its narrative quality). Ranjith could have regained atleast 30-40 minutes of screen time which he could have employed to build other characters. e.g. why the rehab characters ended that way, or a documentary style exploration of Malay problems, or even how the Malay Tamil youth population absorbs the Indian Tamil movie culture. Superficial.
- Overall incompetency: Tamizhnesan’s grandson is another dhandachoru. Why does he not kill Kabali when he gets a chance at the jetty/pier, that too with two sets of crack body guards guarding the don. What does that say of Yogi’s shadowing calibre? Of the rest of the Kabali gang’s alertness? I mean, c’mon. The other fanboy Jeeva creates a chance to meet Tony Lee to kill him and instead of snatching his gun, which he actually carried at that point, to shoot him right in his face grabs Tony Lee by his collar and runs alongside the car. I am sad they did not torture him more. Yogi and Kumaran hatch a half baked suicidal plot to kill Tony Lee, but instead of a gun Yogi uses a pen knife. So much for her contract killer resume. All this is masala so don’t expect logic? Then let us please take the dalit message and stuff it right where it belongs in the movie. The scene where Kabali lays waste the entire gang of villains (one of them has a quick fire sub machine gun) is laughable. Sure, Batou taking on a whole Yakuza faction is drool material but.. ah well.
- Low Budget/High Budget – I have not watched Ranjith’s earlier ventures. But what I gather is that he is adept at setting the scene without spending on CGI and other gimmickry. Why would a director who has mastered the art of grit move into campy territory. Why spend on renting huge halls, chinese extras, incompetent animation, slo-mo etc when they only take away from the movie? Why film in airport lounges, malaysian estates, malaysian skybars when they are all absolutely useless to the story?
- Actors : Winston Chao as a cross cultural villain would have suited Bruce Lee movies in the early 1970s. The wrong intonation, no back (story/bone, Beat Kitano in Battle Royale is a great villain. formidable and ennui ridden), no cunningness, no nobility, no evil, like Thilakan in Namukku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal. Just a cardboard outsider character for Rajini to mouth dialogues to. What again was the point of Ang Lee? The Jeeva character symbolizes everything wrong in tamil movie characterization. Mindless adulation, pesky acting, gratuitous casting. Where are the trouble makers of yesteryear, the “i know Raghuvarans“?
- Light Skinned Women in Movies: For all the equality being talked about here are a few things to chew on. Rajini chooses to marry a fair skinned girl with a fairer skinned daughter. In all the scenes where Malaysian workers are shown, in the background not one single Tamil lady is fair. They are all extraordinarily black. Not dark chocolate. Espresso. Especially in Malaysia where Tamils are discriminated mainly by skin colour, this casting completely absolves Rajini from having to carry on that fight through generations. This is the equivalent of someone named “Kabali” or “Changili” instead of fighting to shake his name off of caste and class connotations, changing his name to Srinivasan. It is an effective way but it is not exactly a fight for equality. It is a ploy for camouflage.
- Women in Kabali – Dhansika’s character Yogi is only as bad ass as Rajini and the rest of the male characters allow her to be. She is juvenile in her naivete in her second half, walks into trouble with eyes wide open and proves particularly inept at killing people who matter and when it matters. She is overridden by the Madras edupudi. Throughout the sequences he talks only to Rajinikanth (at one point bluntly even refusing to talk to Yogi about a “discovery”). To him and to many other character Yogi is just a prop and pretty face. Killing a couple of extras with a few slow motion shots and handling a gun is not equality. Yogi always stands behind Kabali in the presence of strangers. And she has to fall in love? The doe eyed Radhika Apte with white hair does not look 60. She looks exactly like a 30 year old lady wearing makeup, pretending to be a 60 year old. And failing badly. Why exactly has she been waiting around? That my friend is inequality. She should have been shown having another family with her own life. If you want to challenge norms portray the solution. Don’t do a half ass job and blame society for your temerity. Her identity? “I am Kabali’s wife”. Hmm. Drum beating caste inequality but utterly ignorant of gender equality? To argue that unlike in other rajini movies he does not moralize gender roles is just a reflection of how regressive the earlier movies were. Not how progressive Kabali is. The Meena character is best left untold. An appa sentiment reminiscent of colour TV Sivaji Ganesan movies designed to suckle at the life giving font of the super star.
- Sloppy story telling – Why is Ranjith afraid to zoom in to the character’s faces? This just shows the laziness of the director and the utter incompetence of the actors. Wide angle panning shots are good for epics. And this was not one. You do not even need tracking shots. And rushed coups as a final blow? Initial powerpoint presentation of the gang members? Montages about character growths? Flashbacks? How long more.
By many standards this is a movie not worth its salt despite being one of the better rajini movies. Such is the sad state of Rajinikanth’s baggage and the sorry plight of Tamil movies that we are overjoyed at even mediocre fare. Rant Over. Magizchi. Mannikkavum.